Perspectives on New Year’s Resolutions


Happy New Year, folks!!!!

Next week begins the first FULL week of the new year. This is an important detail for those of us who have strategically delayed executing goals to maximize any final moments of vacation – i.e., to procrastinate. For clarity’s sake, you are not alone. My name is Angela, and I am a procrastinator.

But, as we hit the reset button on how we envision our healthier, wealthier, happier selves for 2013, I would like to offer some optional approaches. My most practical offering is Craig Ballyntyne’s book entitled How to Set Goals: Ultimate Goal Setting Guide to Having Your Best Year Ever.  This book is a very worthwhile 99-cent investment (via Kindle) — full of practical guidance in achieving goals around our “health, wealth, social self and personal enrichment.”

However, I’ve included additional perspectives/insights that you may find helpful, but mostly humorous. For instance…

…if you’re looking for MOTIVATION…

…if you find REALISM more helpful…

…perhaps an alternative form of BEHAVIOR CHANGE…

…or a more CLINICAL perspective…

……..or just a good old-fashioned prayer!

Remember, it’s all a matter of perspective.

– Angela M. MacDonald

(Images courtesy of;;; and

The Pain Behind the Mask


The holidays are expected to be a season of joy, benevolence and (frequently) a LOT of shopping. However, studies reveal that the holidays can also signal the recurrence of past emotional pain and an increase in ‘the blues’ or ‘holiday depression.’ As such, many pastors also deal with an uptick in requested pastoral counseling sessions. This means that pastors may hear countless stories about the memories of lost loved ones, the absence of family due to travel or family conflict, and strained marriages.

Pastors are expected to be caring, available, and safe receivers of this information. And society conditions all of us to present a brave front in the midst of sorrow. So how can pastors manage the weight of sadness heard from congregants while it may inevitably remind them of their own losses?

One way is by recognizing depression, which often gets masked or overlooked.

Drs. John Lynch and Christopher Kilmartin have written a compelling book entitled The Pain Behind the Mask. Although the book’s subtitle says that it addresses masculine depression (an often undiagnosed condition), the authors provide incredible points throughout the book that can be useful for everyone. The authors specifically mention female professionals who decide to adopt a less feminine persona as a survival skill in male-dominated professions.

Lynch and Kilmartin explain that women are diagnosed with depression twice as often as men. However, they note that those statistics may be inaccurate since men experience depression differently than women and are expected to display “traditional masculinity” (hyperindependence, toughness, unfeeling, detached from feelings).  While the definitions are not absolute, Lynch and Kilmartin describe the differences in masculine and feminine depression using the figure below:

The book delves deeper into these and other topics, featuring chapter titles such as  ‘He Sure Doesn’t Look Depressed’ and ‘Empathy for Self and Responsibility for Change.’

It seems to be human nature for all of us to wear some type of mask in our everyday lives. Whether it is at the workplace, a social event or even church, our masks serve to disguise or protect us. For pastors, it can be especially difficult to find a safe place to remove that mask. Further, it may be difficult to recognize that you’re actually wearing a mask when you believe it has been removed.

The Pain Behind the Mask goes on to provide a list of helpful questions to consider if you or a loved one notice that there is a strong disconnect between one’s public appearance and private appearance. Most importantly, The Pain Behind the Mask includes very helpful information and tips to assist you in improving relations with your peers, family and yourself.

Do YOU have an outlet, reliable support person or system that gives you a safe place to take off your mask?

– Angela M. MacDonald

Image credits: Puppy photo courtesy of Bill Weaver, via Flickr/Creative Commons. Book cover and image on male/female depression courtesy of ‘The Pain Behind the Mask.’

Meditate, Move, and Breathe Stress Away


Whether we’re concerned for a loved one’s health, rushing around because we’re late for work and can’t find those darn keys, or have a deadline looming, we all experience some form of stress every day.

To a certain degree, stress is an inevitable part of life, but how we approach and manage the things that make us anxious can make a big difference in the effect stress has on our well-being.

If you’re like me, you are eager to find relaxation methods but ironically find yourself stressed(!) about how long they might take. Well, my fellow relaxation seekers, I have good news!  It truly is possible to fit in one or two simple stress-relieving practices each day.

As I was looking through the Duke HR website this week, I came across a section with information on a few techniques that I found helpful — mindfulness meditation, relaxation poses, and breathing exercises. I also found a series of videos on YouTube that demonstrate three simple stretches you can do almost anywhere to help prevent or relieve stress and pain.

One of our wellness advocates also leads a session of simple chair exercises here.  After trying some of the breathing and stretching exercises, I will definitely be making them a part of my daily routine from now on.

Let us know if you try any of these relaxation techniques or would like to share some tips of your own!

Melanie Kolkin

(Photo by Flickr user Alan Cleaver)

“I don’t” vs. “I can’t”


Many of the pastors participating in our Spirited Life program have had great success on Naturally Slim, a mindful-eating program that we offer them, but they often report that one of the hardest parts of their new lifestyle is saying “no” to sugar. We’re all familiar with the challenge of giving up a vice. Our resolve is strong in the first couple of days or weeks. But slowly, the siren song grows louder and more insistent. It demands a response. What will we say?

Interestingly, it may matter not only whether we say “no,” but also how we say it. A recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that people who say “I don’t” in the face of temptation are less likely to capitulate than those who say “I can’t.

As the University of Chicago Press reports,

In four studies [Vanessa M. Patrick (University of Houston) and Henrik Hagvedt (Boston College)] examined the difference between framing a refusal with the words “I don’t” vs. “I can’t.” “This insight is based on the notion that saying “I can’t” to temptation inherently signals deprivation and the loss from giving up something desirable,” the authors write. “For instance, when faced with a tempting slice of pumpkin pie, one’s spontaneous response, ‘I can’t eat pumpkin pie’ signals deprivation. Saying ‘I don’t eat pumpkin pie’ is more effective.” This approach signals to oneself (and others) a sense of determination and empowerment, which makes the refusal strategy more effective.

A group of 30 women were divided up into three different groups. One group was trained in the “I don’t” strategy; another, the “I can’t” strategy; and the third, a generalized, “just-say-no” strategy. These approaches were reinforced everyday with an email reminder, and participants were invited to share instances of success and failure with their assigned strategy.

Here are the researchers’ findings:

The “I don’t” strategy increased participants’ feelings of autonomy, control, and self-awareness; and it resulted in positive behavioral change. One participant reported “a renewed dedication to shedding those extra pounds….I bought a used folding bicycle this weekend that I can keep in my office and use to ride across campus.” Saying “I don’t” also led to increased longevity; participants reported using it long after the study was completed.

This is more evidence for the “fake it until you make it” approach to behavior change. Oddly enough, we listen to what we say, and what we hear shapes our behavior. A simple word change seems almost too simple to affect whether we reach our goals, but often the simplest tactics are the most effective.

Tommy Grimm

(Image by flickr user justinhenry /via Creative Commons)

Living a long, WELL life


Any of our regular readers know we here at the Clergy Health Initiative are pretty excited about exercise as an important element of a well-lived life.  In fact, one of my favorite posts on our blog explores exercise as a “silver bullet” for health.  And yet, we all know how challenging it can be to work regular exercise into a busy schedule.  Really, we get it!  So any time I come across something in the news that encourages exercise (without making it sound like drudgery that must be undertaken at great pains!) I’m eager to share it, because I need that encouragement as much as anyone.

This week, The New York Times reported on a study just published in the Archives of Internal Medicine that examines the link between fitness in middle age and healthier “twilight years.”  Americans are living longer, but, unfortunately, not often healthier lives.  Many individuals experience decades of declining health that can make the aging process a grim one.  But, as The New York Times shares, perhaps this doesn’t have to be the case.  The article, posted on their Well blog, offers this encouraging finding: “Being or becoming fit in middle age, the study found, even if you haven’t previously bothered with exercise, appears to reshape the landscape of aging” (emphasis mine).

So if you’re still waiting for a reason to get out the door for a short walk, read on (bold font is mine too):

Interestingly, the effects of fitness in this study statistically were greater in terms of delaying illness than in prolonging life. While those in the fittest group did tend to live longer than the least fit, perhaps more important was the fact that they were even more likely to live well during more of their older years…

[E]xercising during midlife, especially if you haven’t been, can pay enormous later-life benefits, [Dr. Benjamin Willis] says…

And moving out of that least-fit category requires, he says, “only a small dose of exercise,” like 20 or 30 minutes of walking on most days of the week.

“You don’t have to become an athlete,” says Dr. Willis, who himself has little time for exercise but tries to fit in a daily walk. “Just getting up off the couch is key.”

Now, that doesn’t sound too torturous, does it?  If you know of any inspiring stories of someone working exercise into their life in middle age, we’d love to hear them!

Caren Swanson

(Image by Flickr user Mtsofan/via Creative Commons)

One Little Did


One thing we at the Clergy Health Initiative value and have posted about from time to time on this blog (here, here, and here) is the idea that even small, singular steps can be very effective in the journey toward behavior change.

Shel Silverstein was one of my favorite poets when I was growing up, and I still enjoy his works.  Some of his poems are quite silly, while others hold significant meaning.  The following poem, “Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda” has always been a favorite, but I think it’s particularly relevant in the context of Spirited Life.

All The Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas
Layin’ In The Sun,
Talkin’ ‘Bout The Things
They Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda done…
But All Those Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas
All Ran Away And Hid
From One Little Did.

-from Shel Silverstein’s Falling Up (as found on

For me, that “one little did” was signing up for a CSA (community-supported agriculture) this summer in my quest to eat more fruits and vegetables.

What is one small thing you can do to chase away a “Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda” in your life?

-Katie Huffman

Walk the Walk, for Ten Minutes


A recent report from the Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) had good news to share: more Americans are going for a walk!  The percentage of people who said they went for a 10-minute walk at least once in the past seven days rose from 56 percent in 2005 to 62 percent in 2010.

True, it’s not a huge increase, but I choose to be encouraged by this finding.  To me, it demonstrates a small, yet significant, ‘step’ in the right direction of more regular physical activity patterns in our country, a pattern mirrored in the lives of many of the pastors we work with through Spirited Life.  Just this month, I’ve spoken with several pastors who have set a 10-minute sized goal for walking.  Here is how it is working for them:

  • Several members of one pastor’s congregation live within a mile of the church.  The pastor straps on his walking shoes and uses his legs, not his car, to get him to a visit.
  • Instead of going directly from car to office, another pastor finds that 10 minutes of walking around the church and church grounds before heading inside is a way to clear his mind before the work day.
  • There is a walking path at a hospital where a third pastor makes regular visits, and she takes advantage of the opportunity to use a paved, traffic-free trail.
  • Another pastor takes a lap around the church’s neighborhood late afternoon and uses the time to mentally prepare for evening bible studies or meetings.

I’m really pleased to hear about these 10-minute walks because they demonstrate the pastors’ conscious choice to alter their routines and introduce a healthful practice.  The walks also can serve as a time to pray, to re-group, to reconsider if you were really hungry for a snack (or just bored), to get outside, or to listen to music.

For many people, the most challenging part of introducing exercise is finding the time, but starting with 10 minutes is a good place to start. To reap additional health benefits, the duration will need to increase, but the exercise doesn’t necessarily have to occur in a single bout. Researchers are learning that taking several 10-minute walks throughout the day is just as effective at controlling blood pressure as taking a single, longer walk of the same duration.

What strategies do you use to incorporate walking into your routine?

— Catherine Wilson

The Quantified Self: Self-knowledge through self-tracking


Gary Wolf is a founder of the Quantified Self, a collaboration of users and toolmakers that share an interest in self-knowledge through self-tracking.  He advocates that gathering quantifiable information about yourself (hours of sleep, happiness rating, mood, time spent on various tasks, calories in, money spent, number of steps per day) can lead to knowledge and insights about your own behavior and reveal the challenges of behavior change.

Quantified Self LogoIn a recent interview with Wolf on On the Media, host Brooke Gladstone seemed skeptical.   She asked Wolf, “What keeps us optimistic is a fantasy of who we are and what we might become, and don’t we run the risk of losing hope when confronted with the harsh, numerical reality of what we really are?”

And he answered (emphasis mine):

“I think that is a very good question.  There is a whole industry devoted to selling the possibility of change to people, for instance, health clubs, which see uptake of membership after New Year’s.  Many, many things we see in our consumer culture are based on hopes that never come true.

One of the things that happens in the quantified self is that people begin to see how related all of their behaviors are, and how difficult [it is] to change one thing in isolation, and then, at the same time, how difficult it is to change many things at once.  On the one hand, this is discouraging, whether it is weight loss, or extreme improvements in happiness, or great leaps in productivity.

The promise of radical change is one of the things we live on in our society.  At the same time, I think trading fantasies of radical change for possibilities of small, important changes is a tradeoff worth making.

Gladstone later asked Wolf, “What is the most powerful truth you’ve learned about yourself by self-quantifying?”

“I track my exercise time, my work time, and I have mediation practice I track. One of the things that became clear…was [that] attempting to increase the quantity of good things that I did too much caused a complete rebound effect…

The advice to ‘go for it,’ advice that is pretty common, and, in my case, at least, it was really pernicious. You could see really clearly that, due to some influence or some ambition, I attempted to turn a steady habit of doing something up, by a lot, a short period of increased activity, say increased physical exercise, then zero on the chart, for weeks!…I think it is more common than people realize.

Really, the advice for people who are trying to do something is to do as little as you possibly can in the right direction, and see what happens, and if that works, then do another tiny little bit in that direction.

As a wellness advocate, I’m struck by Wolf’s insights as they apply to my role of supporting pastors who are pursuing wellness.  Change is difficult, and the process can be frustrating, particularly when our vision of success is unattainable, or we fail to recognize how intertwined a habit has become with our overall lifestyle.

After hearing this interview, I gained an appreciation for the effort required to accurately assess current behaviors before setting a goal and also the importance of exploring how multiple behaviors may be connected.  Self-tracking appears necessary in the process of change to determine whether the adjustments you are trying to make (in small, attainable steps) are working.

For more on this emerging science, visit Wolf’s blog or check out his TED talk.

Catherine Wilson

Photo by Flickr user Bytemarks (via Creative Commons)